Eighteen years have passed since Jesus first visit to the Temple at age twelve. It was now the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius, the Roman emperor. Judea was under the rule of Roman procurator Pontius Pilate. Another of Herods sons, Herod Antipas, was tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, and his half-brother Philip was tetrarch of Gentile areas northeast of Galilee. But most of the actual political control of the country was vested in the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. Composed of seventy members plus the high priest, it was largely a gathering of nobles and therefore controlled by the Sadducees, the majority party, with the Pharisees as the minority party. Since Israel was a theocracy, there was no separation of church and state, and all religious and political matters were ruled by these two governing parties of the Sanhedrin.
Caiaphas, the high priest, held the highest office and had the most power. Limited only by the necessity to gain the approval for the sentence of death from the Roman governor Pilate, the Sanhedrin was supreme in the administration of justice, for the Law of Moses was the law of the land and no other was needed or desired. The Pharisees concerned themselves with the Law, promise of the Messiah, and other prophetic writings. Sadducees, who did not believe in resurrection of the dead, administered Temple functions and grew rich.
John, son of the priest Zechariah, and Elisabeth who was the kinswoman of Mary the mother of Jesus, was a righteous young man. He knew of the miraculous events surrounding his birth and that of Jesus. After his elderly parents died, he sensed the call of God was upon him and withdrew into the desert. While living the simple life as a prophet and denying himself the pleasures of ordinary men in order to keep himself pure, he studied the Law, the promises of Gods kingdom, and the Messiah-King who would be its ruler. John was convinced he had been singled out for a great purpose, and God revealed his mission as the forerunner of the Messiah, who would soon appear.
At about thirty years old, the intense, dedicated man became a fiery prophet in the mold of Elijah, bringing a warning to all people of the impending coming of Gods kingdom on earth, and the necessity to repent of their sins in preparation for it. Like Elijah of old, he wrapped his body in a roughly woven robe of camel hair with a leather girdle about his waist. He slept beneath the open sky or in a cave and ate the food of the poor: often locusts, wild honey, and beanlike pods of the carob (locust) treea ready source of nourishment.
Soon word began to spread that a prophet was teaching in the wilderness country where the Jordan River empties into the north end of the Sea of Judgment (Dead Sea). Gaunt and fiery-eyed, John was like one of those volcanoes which long ago had rumbled beneath this region of steep hills, black basalt boulders, and caves.
The region near Jericho, called Fords of the Jordan, where the road crossed the river between Judea and Perea, was one of the most frequently traveled routes between Jerusalem and Galilee. The Baptist went from place to place on both sides of the river, preaching to the crowds the necessity to repent and be forgiven of their sins through the symbolic rite of baptism. As word of Johns fiery preaching in the wilderness began to spread, more and more people stopped on the way to and from Jerusalem to hear him. There had not been a real prophet in Israel for hundreds of years, and he did not fail to live up to that tradition.
His favorite place was east of Jericho at Bethany beyond Jordan in Perea, in the same area as the fords. This name distinguished it from Bethany on the west side near Jerusalem and Mount of Olives. Preaching from a natural pulpit among the rocks overlooking a grove of sycamores that sheltered his listeners from the burning sun, he shouted, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is upon you!
Many began to say he was the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah:
He is a voice shouting in the wilderness:
Prepare a pathway for the Lords coming!
Make a straight road for him!
Let every valley be raised,
every mountain and hill be brought low,
uneven ground made smooth,
and steep places become level.
Then all people will see
the salvation sent from God.
That voice crying in the wilderness echoed throughout the land and brought all types of hearers from city and village. For once, every distinction was leveled. Pharisee and Sadducee, outcast publican, and heathen soldier met here on common ground. Their bond of union was the common hope of Israelthe Old Testament promise of the kingdom.
Even the area where John preached seemed to fit in with the prophecy. The tumbled basalt boulders and the sulfurous fumes seeping through crevices in the rocks reminded them that God had once filled valleys and brought mountains and hills low when he had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because of their excessive sinfulness. This same sinfulness, John preached, would lead God to destroy the people once again unless they listened and repented.
Unable to comply fully with the complexities of the Law, the common people were always conscious of their sin. Even if they had not been, the Pharisees would have reminded them of it, so Johns thunder concerning imminent end of the present era and the coming of Gods kingdom under an anointed Messiah struck fear and trembling into nearly every heart. By thousands they came and listened along the banks of the Jordan and the several brooks that ran into it. Every day after he preached, John led a procession of repentant souls down into the shallows at the fords of the Jordan to be baptized as a sign of repentance.
But it was in the pulpit that he really became the prophet the people were already acclaiming him to be. When he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees supposedly coming to be baptized, he denounced them, You brood of snakes! he exclaimed. Who warned you to flee Gods coming judgment? Prove your repentance by the fruit you bear.
One of the Sadducees shouted back, Thats just for Gentiles. Were safe because we are descendants of Abraham!
That proves nothing, John warned. God can make children for Abraham out of these stones. Even now the ax of Gods judgment is poised, ready to sever your roots. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.
The Sadducees scoffed at his answer, but some of the people in the crowd fell on the ground before him in repentance, Master, what shall we do?
If you have two coats, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry. Johns reply was the simplest of Gods commandments, but because of human greed, the one most frequently ignored.
Teacher, what shall we do? a tax collector asked.
Show your honesty. Make sure you collect no more taxes than the Roman government requires, John referred to the publicans habit of demanding from people greater taxes than they were legally required to pay.
What of me? a soldier inquired.
To him John said, Do not extort money or accuse people of things you know they did not do, and be content with your pay.
Everyone was expecting the Messiah to come soon and some of the Pharisees asked him, Are you the Messiah, the one we have been waiting for?
John answered, No, I am not the Messiah.
Are you Elijah?
I am not.
Are you the Prophet?
Then who are you? they asked.
He answered in the words of the prophet Isaiah, I am just a voice crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way for the Lord.
They were insistent, If you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Messiah, why are you baptizing?
I am just his forerunner. My baptizing with water only symbolizes the total cleansing of the spiritual baptism to come. Someone is coming soon who is much greater, and I am not even worthy to be his slave. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire! He is ready to separate the chaff from the grain with his winnowing fork. Then he will clean up the threshing area, storing the grain in his barn but burning the chaff with never-ending fire.
Scripture had spoken in terms which pointed to something beyond offerings and sacrifices. The people must have felt that the blood of animals and the whole body of ceremonial and ritual ordinances could not make one perfect. They were only a shadow of things to come, a new and better covenant, established on better promises. Water baptism was a symbol of Christ, who would redeem them through his death, and would baptize them in the Holy Spirit and fire on the Day of Pentecost. The hope John held out to them was of purity and preparation. He had only one absorbing thought: The kingdom was at hand; the Messiah-King was cominglet them prepare!
The Sadducees and Pharisees reported back to the Sanhedrin. They decided so long as John did not claim Messiahship, but identified himself merely as someone warning of the coming Kingdom of God, they would be tolerant of this simple doctrine. For the time the Sanhedrin let him alone, but secretly watched his every move.
But who was their Messiah? When would he appear? Even John didnt know.
Call of God
Jesus, six months younger than John the Baptist, was also about thirty years old. A man was not expected to reach his full vigor of body and mind until that age, then his opinions were respected by his elders when he took his place in the councils and discussions on an equal basis.
The Carpenter had finished his days work and the evening meal was ready. Afterward, Jesus and his half-brothers withdrew to the side of the room. It had been evident throughout the meal that James had something of importance to say, but he kept silent until they finished eating.
He eagerly began his story, I talked to a traveler from Jerusalem today. He told me news of our cousin John. He has been preaching in the area by the Fords of the Jordan near Jericho, and right now hes at Bethany beyond Jordan. They call him the Baptist because he baptizes all those who repent of their sins. Many people were there from all over the land and were baptized after hearing his message.
For a kinsman to achieve so much fame that people would come from great distances to hear himthis was something exciting.
What does he say? Jude asked.
John claims to be the messenger sent to foretell the coming of the Anointed One, James said impressively.
The Messiah who will lead Israel out of bondage?
Yes, he quoted from Isaiah and some people think he is the Elijah who is to be his forerunner.
Joses asked, Does John know when the Anointed One will come?
James shook his head. The merchant didnt say, but from what John has been preaching, the people believe it will be soon. That is why so many are repentingso they will be ready for the Kingdom of God.
There was silence in the room. Even to imagine the coming of Gods kingdom on earth was an awesome thing, an event to bring both joy and fear; and the fact that no one knew the hour when it would come only made it more exciting.
James broke the silence. The prophets tell us there will be no mistaking him when the Messiah does come.
Jesus had not spoken during the conversation. Instead he seemed to have withdrawn into himself, as Mary and the others had noticed that he was doing more and more lately. Looking at him now, Mary was startled by the light in his eyes and the look of decision upon his face.
The events of Christs birth and the time she and Joseph had found him in the Temple at Jerusalem when he was twelve were only memories now, things so long past that it could be doubted if they had ever occurred. Yet, though Mary loved her son dearly and knew that he loved her, she had recognized long ago that there was a part of him, a side to his nature, which she had never been able to share as she did with the others.
The rest of the family was busy discussing the meaning of the Baptists sudden rise to prominence. They did not notice when Jesus got to his feet and went out into the courtyard, but Mary followed as far as the doorway. Her son stood in the middle of the small court beside the carpenters shop where he worked most of the time, his eyes lifting to the starlit early spring sky. She could tell he was praying, but didnt know what it meant.
The family soon went to their sleeping pallets, but Marys eyes did not close until long after when she heard Jesus come into the house and seek his own pallet beside the others. Without being told, somehow she knew that he had come to a decision out there in the courtyard, a decision that must be related to what James had said about their cousin John. But she had no idea of what it was until he came to her in the morning and told her he was going to the place where John was preaching.
She did not argue. He was at the peak of his manhood and was entitled to make his own decisions. He was her firstborn son, but now she had to let him go.